We asked Amirah to answer a few questions about her Fulbright experience in Indonesia:
Amirah: My name is Amira Nelson. I’m originally from Champaign–Urbana, Illinois. I was Smith class of 2010, who opted for an ETA to Indonesia in 2012-13. Indonesia is a country where a limited number of ETA’s can apply for the second year. I was one of 3 ETA’s to do the second year 2013-14, and now I work at a mid-size, non-profit in Washington, DC. We manage a portfolio of US aid and State Department grants. I worked on two USAID scholarship programs for Malawi graduate students and Palestinian graduate students.
FellowSmithie: That’s amazing! What surprised you about yourself while you were away?
Amirah: I have always been the kind of person who can put up with a lot of suffering. While at Smith I practiced patience, but being in Indonesia taught me just how resilient I was. I lived in two different places while in Indonesia, one of which was an island of about 50,000 – 100,000 people. It was majority Muslim, pretty conservative. Then, for the next year, I moved to a city of about 200,000 people that was majority Christian and on the other side of the country. I surprised myself with my flexibility and resiliency. Fulbright definitely solidified the formative experience that started when I came to college.
FellowSmithie: What one thing prepared you the most for the Fulbright?
Amirah: It was the fact that I came to Smith on a grant, and some of those grants allowed me study abroad. I studied abroad in Australia for 11 months at the University of Melbourne. This would not have been possible without Smith’s financial support. While in Australia, I studied Indonesian. That was really the number one thing that prepared me. I was one of fifty English teaching assistants, and only a small handful had Indonesian language skills, because Indonesia does not require you to know Bahasa Indonesia to apply for the Fulbright. That put me at a competitive edge. But in terms of my experience there, I was better able to communicate with people. I had a better idea what was going on and I really helped me hit the ground running.
FellowSmithie: What did you learn about yourself during the application process at Smith? What was the most challenging part? What was the most rewarding part?
Amirah: Completing it. I applied for college and had to write applications, but I didn’t like it. What I wrote in my college application was probably okay…Smith accepted me after all! But working with the Fellowships Program (and working with Don Andrew) meant I had to respond in multiple drafts to essay prompts and re-examine, re-vision what I was trying to say. I looked closely at my personal story in order to write the Personal Statement. That was something I had never done before. Even in all the time I was at Smith, writing many, many college essays, I hadn’t written essays about myself or about my ambitions and plans for the future. Being able to complete that final project, turn it in and actually be accepted by Fulbright was the most satisfying part. It sounds silly–‘completing the application.’
Also, applying for a Fulbright forced me out of my comfort zone in terms of asking professors for advice. I asked 10 professors to read rough drafts of my application or provide feedback about plans for my side project or write recommendations for me. It was really a collaborative effort. It showed me how many people at Smith were here to support me.
FellowSmithie: What did you take away from your experience in Indonesia?
Amirah: Two year years in Indonesia taught me to see a society where people work together to achieve the small tasks of daily life. It sounds corny, but it was really, really touching. In Indonesia, there’s this concept of a collaborative struggle to complete a goal–for example, I saw a person collecting money from the community because another person was sick in the hospital and needed help to pay the bills. Another time, a road had been washed out and the village got together to help rebuild it. Or, the time when everybody got together to set up a wedding venue in a backyard. People there are immensely gracious and kind. I can’t count the number of times I was given a ride by a stranger. Or, when I was given food by someone; it was their lunch but they told me, ‘here, you have it, just because you’re here.’
FellowSmithie: Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
Amirah: Doing the Fulbright gave me real life experiences to fuel a passion, to pursue national development or international academic exchange. I majored in Econ and thought I wanted to work in sports economics. I had taken all these sports econ classes but I didn’t want to go to grad school for economics, although I thought maybe something with sports. I then started to get interested in antitrust law. I wanted to be a lawyer. I took a job as a paralegal and didn’t like that for a variety of reasons.
Then I decided to apply for a Fulbright. I thought, ‘I am going to bite the bullet and am going to commit to doing this application. If I get in, I get in. If I don’t get in, I don’t get in.’ I did a total 180. I then minored in Third World Development Studies. Being in Indonesia and seeing NGOs working on the ground and hearing about the problems that happened when development is done incorrectly from the people those projects were supposed to help gave me the fuel to claw my way into an international development non-profit.
Right now I work in an exchange arm of development–this just means people come here to be educated or trained or they go to third-world countries to be educated or trained. Education is really transformative. I would love to go into the field and implement the project myself, but in order for this change to be sustainable, it needs to be done by people from that country. This is my way of giving back and facilitating the training people need to make change in their own country. I like that for now.
FellowSmithie: Last question: how would you encourage a current applicant to stay on track?
Amirah: What worked for me was just to inform everybody–especially professors–that I was applying for a Fulbright, that I was doing this application. I reached out to a lot of professors for help, and they were more than willing to help me, which was amazing. But this also gave me the psychological push that I really needed to complete the application, because it was a collaborative effort. So many people helped me, and there was no way I was going to quit. That’s my tip: just involve as many people as possible!